Faceless workers

Published: Saturday 15 August 2009

They work in our interest

we have heard a great deal in recent years about the demand-supply chasm in India's electricity supply. Solemn discussions abound on whether India's newfound recognition as a nuclear power will plug this gap. Almost every participant to this debate seeks a clincher in the oft-repeated, if rather grubby, concept of "national interest". India's recent bonhomie with the US promises an end to the country's energy problems or threatens to turn the country into a lackey of imperialism, depending on one's political position. The energy in question is largely above reproach--unless you are one of those obscure peaceniks. A boost to the electricity grid is, after all, in national interest.

National interest demands sacrifices. The electricity grid has so far proved no exception--even before the promised bounty of nuclear power arrives. About 500,000 people in Uttar Pradesh's Sonebhadra district live with the mercury that creeps out after coal is burnt in the nine plants that supply 10 per cent of the country's electricity (Mercury in air, water). Forget the good citizen's award, these people have no place in the agendas of the several toxicology institutes in the country.

But research institutes in the country rarely have a place for the faceless. Professors engaged in the cerebral task of national income accounting see no reason to reckon for the work of ragpickers. This despite a paradigm shift towards capital-intensive, large-scale privatization of solid waste management services. Goaded by judicial action, municipalities sub-contract agencies to help set up rag-picking dumps, dhalos, via a global bid. But the real work happens at the level of the ragpickers, who sift through sharp shards of glass, plastic scraps, pointy metals, dirty paper, segregate the waste and sanitize it for the contractor, most likely to be a terrible bully (Contract killers). The money ragpickers save municipalities does not really make it to the planners's books.

Such denial is symptomatic of our society's schizophrenic relationship with the faceless. It exacts its homage from them, almost a ritual, only to consign them to anonymity. But why mouth platitudes about national interest and planning when human history is replete with stories of our ambivalence towards the faceless, the small and minuscule.

It's more than 300 years since the first microbe was observed. Science shows we cannot do without them (Who are you?). But the general feeling is microbes somehow spoil our party. Human nature?

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